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The rite stuff
Wine as ritual

In addition to its links with secular pleasure, wine has been an integral part of the dominant Western religions ó Judaism and Christianity ó for thousands of years. Jews commence their Sabbath by lighting candles, drinking wine, and breaking bread. Many Christians drink wine as part of the Eucharist, and believe that it symbolizes (or is transformed into) the blood of Christ. A wine glass is destroyed during a Jewish marriage ceremony. On almost every big occasion, we lift our glasses, usually filled with one kind of wine or another, to say a few words about that occasion.

Many believe that through wine (or other intoxicating substances, such as " magic mushrooms " ), one is better able to commune with the divine for a heightened religious experience. But in our society, wine has also become part of less formal celebrations. And this raises the question: how do you go about choosing wine to serve at wedding receptions or other ritual gatherings?

First off, you donít want to run out of wine, and extra bottles will eventually be consumed, so make sure you have enough. Itís safe to estimate six glasses of wine to a bottle, and at any large function where most of the people are of legal drinking age ó and not alcoholics ó a good bet is that each drinker will average two glasses of wine (a note of caution for all those who invite me to your special events: I alone can increase the average to 2.2 glasses of wine per person).

Secondly, you do not need to break the bank to serve decent wine. The staff at your local wine shop can help you select something special for not much more than $20 per bottle (which works out to $200 per case), if you can afford to spend that much. And if you canít afford to spend that much, take heart: you can serve great wine for around $10 a bottle, which, with a discount, should get you fairly close to $100 per case. You need to have both a red and a white, and most people also like to serve some form of sparkling wine, either for dessert or for the toasts. (For sparkling wines, you get closer to eight glasses per bottle, since the glasses are usually smaller, and you donít fill them as high.)

The key is to keep wine simple and basic. People donít expect the wine to blow them away, and your goal is to make as many people happy as possible. The more complex a wine, the greater the chance that it will turn some people off. Of course, if the wine is bad, or even just mediocre, no one will be too interested in drinking much of it either. So what you want is something straightforward and easily quaffable, and you want it to go well with the food youíll be serving ó which often means, alas, different wines to go with dinner and the milling-around/hors díoeuvres portion of the event, if the flavors of the food before dinner are markedly different from those of the meal.

On the white side, chardonnay makes an appropriate basic wine; for your red, cabernet sauvignon or merlot are good bets (although syrah/shiraz and zinfandel, if not too over-the-top, can also be crowd pleasers). Remember, itís an event, not an intimate dinner; people arenít likely to remember what wine they drank (and if they drink enough, they might not remember anything at all).

Of course, if you drink just the right amount of wine, chances are that any experience will be pretty pleasurable ó and the better the wine, the more pleasurable the experience ought to be. But beware: the more inebriated one is, the less one can taste, as alcohol dulls the senses. In the Jewish tradition, at Purim, one is meant to drink so much wine that one cannot tell a villain from a hero. In this day and age, such intoxication is disfavored. But the principle ó that drinking wine is a vital part of a party ó is not, and itís the hostís job to make sure that the wine pulls its weight.

The word " rite " is derived from the ancient words for flow, which seems appropriate: when it comes to serving wine, the key to throwing a good ritual celebration is to let it flow, let it flow, let it flow.

Here are a handful of affordable wines that would enhance any ritual:

1998 Purple Mountain Chardonnay Sonoma. Made for one of the finest wine importers in the business, Michael Skurnik. I recommended it to friends for a wedding last year and they slurped it up (and the groom wound up giving me a job ó so I guess he liked it). Itís a wine made by a reliable producer, and itís always astonished me how much quality you get for the price. Tropical flavors and partial malo make this a clean, bright, refreshing wine.

2000 Coppola Gold Label Chardonnay. Plain vanilla, but no less lovely. Plump ripe fruit, tropical ó killer-diller when itís dressed to the hilt, with some salmon or chicken in a beurre blanc or cream sauce.

1999 Coppola Syrah Green Label Diamond Series. The people at Coppola have been making some of my favorite under-$20 wines these days. This one has wild blueberry and a concentrated layer of sweetness. Itís very direct. It also breaks my rule of sticking with a cabernet or merlot, because itís not only deep, itís also approachable ó full of warmth and, dare I say, wit and charm. This would work best with red meat.

1999 Rosemount Cabernet Sauvignon Australia. Pointed yet smooth, sort of the gold standard of affordable cabernets. Well crafted, with black fruit, some pepper, proper oak, and a refreshing tartness on the finish. Kind of a canít-miss wine, especially in the finer years.

1998 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon California. Soft and supple, but clean and well made. Brambly and amiable, not deep, but no moving parts. Just straight-ahead, value-driven cab.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]


Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001

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